War Takes a Holiday

Joyeux Noël

Benno Fürmann, Guillaume Canet, Dany Boon, and Diane Kruger star in a film written and directed by Christian Carion.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

One of the key early scenes in this disarmingly joyous and implicitly sad anti-war film hints at a powerful thematic subcurrent in this crowd-pleasing WWI-era film from French writer/director Christian Carion. In the scene, a young pair of Germans, an officer and his wife, sing the glorious lines of Bach’s “Bist du bei mir” for a gathering of officers, and the message rings clear both in this scene, and later in the film: Music is unique in its universality and power to transcend differences, even those ominous enough to start and fuel wars. Or so this story goes.

Even a cursory description of the film, gentle-spirited enough to have been up for the foreign film Oscar, fills the heart with hope. It offers an account of an actual occurrence in WWI when enemies called a truce on Christmas Eve and emerged from their separate trenches to fraternize. War, literally, takes a holiday. Were this purely a fiction film, the premise would seem absurd. Given history, the story turns notions of absurdity around and aims it where it belongs — in the absurd yet apparently endless human impulse to make war.

Carion is careful to cast his narrative net widely, bringing together empathetic personal stories from all sides of the conflict, in Scotland, France, and Germany. He illustrates the commonality of the soldiers’ existence and emotional lives, beyond the specifics of the conflict. As that blissful Christmas Eve truce unfolds in the film, brought on by songs from both camps, a warm glow takes over the screen and we naturally sense a fleeting optimism. The film itself cozies right up to the brink of sentimentality but stops just short of falling in.

After seeing this film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (it was one of the clear hits), even through the downpour of distractions and countless other films, this critic was sweetly haunted by “Bist du bei mir,” even more than the film itself. Any criticisms of the film’s dangerous flirtations with easy sentiment seem churlish: With Joyeux Noël, Carion has clearly and earnestly told a story we desperately need to hear at this moment in the human experiment.

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